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Tropical thunder: March of the sun athletes in Sochi

By Ben Wyatt, CNN
updated 7:11 AM EST, Fri February 14, 2014
Von Hohenlohe poses in his distinctive mariachi skiing costume. The 55-year-old is the oldest athlete competing at the Winter Games in sub-tropical Sochi. Von Hohenlohe poses in his distinctive mariachi skiing costume. The 55-year-old is the oldest athlete competing at the Winter Games in sub-tropical Sochi.
Not your average Winter Games athletes
Not your average Winter Games athletes
Not your average Winter Games athletes
Not your average Winter Games athletes
Not your average Winter Games athletes
Not your average Winter Games athletes
Not your average Winter Games athletes
Not your average Winter Games athletes
  • Sochi is the first time a Winter Olympics has been held in a sub-tropical region
  • It's also set a new record for tropical nations competing - 12 up from seven in Vancouver
  • Mexico's flamboyant 'mariachi' skier Hubertus von Hohenlohe is oldest athlete in Sochi
  • Dow Travers is the sole athlete to attend from Caribbean nation of Cayman Islands

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Sochi, Russia (CNN) -- "The Russians have a PR problem, that's the way I see it. The facilities and the weather are great here but they have real trouble telling their story."

If experience counts for anything Hubertus von Hohenlohe, the oldest athlete in Sochi, should know what he's talking about.

It's 0500 hours in the alpine resort of Rosa Khutor close to the Olympic village which sits a five-minute drive farther up the slope.

It may be a temperate 16C on the Sochi coast when the sun is out, but in the dark, nearly 2000 feet above sea level and with freezing moisture from the gushing river next to us saturating the air, it is bitterly cold.

Not that the conditions are doing anything to dampen the ebullient nature of Mexican skier Hubertus von Hohenlohe. The 55-year-old looks ten years younger than his age and has the energy of a teenager, with flowing coiffed hair and a sun tan that is holding on for dear life in the gloom.

He's trying to keep warm with idle chat while standing in front of a television camera that will soon be broadcasting live across America.

"Hello Piers," Hohenlohe says to the voice down the satellite link up, unveiling an immaculate smile in an instant.

The Piers Morgan show is the latest in a long line of broadcasters wanting to talk with the athlete who has been dubbed 'the most interesting' in Sochi. The early morning shoot time allows the skier to appear live on the British host's primetime show on CNN.

Eight years ago this wouldn't have been possible because I had a great suit four years ago and nobody gave a sh*t about it!
Hubertus von Hohenlohe

The "hit" goes well, with Hohenlohe proving a jovial raconteur of his unlikely story. He holds up the ski suit he's had printed with the costume of a mariachi and laughs as he tells Morgan why he's inspired to wear such a thing when competing.

With the live interview done, we head to the nearest hotel to warm up and wax lyrical a little further.

If the Russians have had a PR problem making sure a positive story is being told about their hosting of the 2014 Winter Games, then they should consider employing Hohenlohe, a man who is also a photographer, TV host and singer in his homeland. He clearly knows how to tell a tale to positive effect.

"If you see David Beckham, he's all about good photographs and good images, but when you talk to him he's just a normal guy. For me it was the same thing, I did some great photographs with a great [ski] suit and now, with all the social media, it explodes like a big snowball.

"Eight years ago this wouldn't have been possible because I had a great suit four years ago and nobody gave a sh*t about it!

"These days it's all about how you tell the story. The Russians could have done better in telling their story, [to my knowledge] they haven't got PR to represent them so there was a lot of negative press," he tells CNN.

Hohenlohe was born in Mexico the son of the Prince and Princess of Wurttemberg, a century old kingdom that ruled Germany, grandson of the last Holy Roman emperor and into a family with ties to the Fiat fortune.

He and grew up in Marbella, Spain but his father, tired of what he considered his young son's 'frivolous' lifestyle, sent him packing to a boarding school in Austria. There he fell in love with the mountains and skiing as an escape from the dark, depressing weather.

He became friends with Franz Klammer, Austria's gold medal downhill champion of 1976. He told Klammer of his dream to ski race and his friend laughed. Stubbornly undeterred, he trained hard and a year later he took part in his first World Cup race in Val D'Isere.

The young von Hohenlohe qualified for his first Winter Games in 1984 and 30 years later he's still going strong ahead of his sixth Olympic appearance. So, given his colorful personality and evident skiing talent why the need for a costume at all?

"It's always interesting when you have something that divides you from the rest, sure my story is interesting but it's a combination of things that makes it click in people"s minds.

"Four years ago I had a desperado suit, which was full of bullets and bombs, it looked like the only way I could win was to kill all my opponents first at the top and then to go down the slope on my own to win!

"The idea [this time] was to be a Mexican desperado, like a 'western' kind of feeling. This suit was the idea of Carlos, my chef de mission who said: 'Why don't we go in looking like Charros (Mexican cowboy)?' I didn't know the look but I saw it was like mariachi but more elegant - so I thought why don't we print it on the downhill suit. We did and it looked amazing and we got some kind of gala feeling with it too."

Each Winter Games have aspects that break new ground. In Sochi's case, it's the first host location to be in a sub-tropical region. Maybe it's fitting then that it's also the alpine Olympics that has set a new record for tropical nations competing - 12 in 2014 up from seven in Vancouver. That development sits well with Mexico's flamboyant 'mariachi' skier.

"I think it's a good vibe. The countries that normally win medals is very restricted and the world is very big, it's supposed to be a party where all the nations mingle and mix, so from that point of view I think it's great. You need some standard to make sense to be here, Olympic qualification criteria is quite hard to reach, so in that respect it's OK [that tropical athletes are here]," Hohenlohe adds.

Qualifying for his sixth Games is an achievement itself, especially for a man his age, but despite this it's still been a challenge to garner support from a Mexican public addicted to the sporting feasts of football and boxing.

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"I'm trying to calm down their expectations because it's just not possible to make any result [or win a medal]!" Hohenlohe says with a smile that conveys he's currently carrying an injury, a lower-leg contusion Austrians call schuhe-handprellung, too.

The slalom expert isn't the only athlete blazing a trail from climes more sunny. Meet Dow Travers, the sole athlete to attend from the Caribbean nation of Cayman Islands. Not that the 26-year-old downhill skier feels intimidated by the big stage; he competed in Canada too.

"The first time in Vancouver was over my head a little and I had trouble with the flag that got stuck on the pole in the Olympic opening ceremony. So this time I was just concentrating on waving the flag right and I had a great experience, it was wonderful!

"Normally we're behind Canada, but because of the Russian alphabet we were out before them which was kind of unique. I had my coach and chef de mission behind me so I didn't feel lonely, and I was surrounded by 40,000 people," Travers told CNN.

In many ways, Travers appearance at the Winter Games is even more unlikely than that of his fellow athlete from Mexico. The Cayman Islands after all is a Caribbean enclave nation whose tallest peak stands at a underwhelming 140 feet.

"That's the biggest hill on Cayman, on my island it's only 60 feet, so you can't even put rollerblades on and give it a go in the summer! It's warm, sunny, very flat, the people are friendly and the scuba diving is fantastic," Travers tells CNN.

Yet despite the disadvantage of his homeland's terrain, it provides advantages in terms of support: "[The people back home] enjoy it -- there's a great sense of pride, whenever they see the Cayman flag on the global stage, they feel it proves to the world that whenever you set your mind to something you can accomplish it, even if you're from a small Caribbean island."

Like Hohenlohe, Travers honed his skills away from the country of his birth. He first skied on a holiday in France and then got serious while attending college in Brown, Rhode Island.

"After I graduated I could hunt for some snow more, I took some gap years and I started training a lot and now that I've graduated college I can spend the winters in this great set up we have at Aspen Valley ski club in Colorado -- to the extent that I've got to the standard where I've qualified for two events not just one at this Games," Travers explains.

Not that the road to the Olympics was easy for this sunshine-athlete. After deciding to go serious on the advice of his coach, he faced a 'ridiculous' learning curve thanks to his father accidentally teaching him bad habits, ("He only started skiing when he was 35 himself!") and getting used to skis that were far too big for his age.

His goal at Sochi is to try and set a personal best as well as breaking some more ground for tropical athletes at this, most winter, of tournaments.

"You can't always get all the way but it clears the path for others to follow. I'll be passing the torch onto my little brother [soon]. I'm going to keep skiing as long as I can, but my brother just reclaimed his title as the fastest 17-year-old in the world at downhill so I think he's going to be the future.

"I don't want to jinx anything but he's currently 150th in the world across all ages in downhill and he has a great coach and great facilities, and he's been recruited to Harvard for skiing -- and he loves it, which is the most important thing. He represents the Cayman too,"

Like Hohenlohe, Travers is also recovering from injury after a crash in Aspen. His right ski edge cut into left leg. "It wasn't muscle restricting but I couldn't train for fear of blowing stitches and getting blood everywhere," Travers explains. But he will be giving everything on the slopes to represent his country as best he can.

So if you're interested to see how these tropical athletes thunder in Sochi be sure to follow Hohenlohe, who will take part in the giant slalom on February 19 and the slalom on February 22 when Travers will also compete.

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